Last month, surrounded by towering industrial steel and heavy-duty kitchen equipment, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson rolled out commercial blueprints on a dusty cement floor in the former Durham Food Co-op building on West Chapel Hill Street.
"This is my insane idea," he explained.
Today, the dust has been swept, the steel has been shined and a once-abandoned building has finally come back to life as a new gastronomic community venture. Food entrepreneurs and enthusiasts: Welcome The Cookery, Durham's first culinary incubator and certified kitchen space for rent.
Insanity be damned, the logistical and popular demand for an available commercial kitchen for small food businesses made sense to Hawthorne-Johnson. Known for his entrepreneurial spirit, the co-founder of Bull City Restoration bought the building, once home to one of the nation's oldest food co-ops. He initially planned to open an acupuncture clinic. But after many years of service in the food industry, the Durham native combined a passion for food and construction with his wife Rochelle's branding sense (she owns Row Design Studios) to launch the 1,100-square-foot food production facility and business incubator.
"It's important to me because I grew up here," he says. "Nothing makes me happier than seeing successful, locally owned small business. And I really would have liked to have this service when I started my small business, you know? Somebody to teach me how to think about it. I really want to be a part of seeing Durham blossom."
The facility will be open to members 24/7. Prices haven't been set, though members can expect to pay a small membership fee and monthly or hourly rates, depending on needs and type of contract. Discounts may be available, for example, for late-night use. The certified space is equipped with a full professional catering kitchen, a baker's kitchen, four full-size commercial convection ovens, a main stovetop with six burners and a large griddle, a 30-quart floor mixer, secure storage space in the 12-foot-by-15-foot walk-in cooler and reach-in freezers, work tables, food truck cleaning and stocking terminals, personal lockers and a variety of other cooking and baking utensils and equipment.
"I think that a lot of people who are really creative and have a good recipe and love to cook, and, particularly right now, who are out of work, that given the right environment could flourish, could start a business and be successful at it. People are stopped by the expense of producing a facility like this—it's tremendously expensive. This is a way to make a modest investment," says Hawthorne-Johnson.
Who can use this space? A high demand comes from Durham's budding food truck operators. The mobile businesses can use the building's dock to stock their trucks, unload and clean at any hour, and use the kitchen as a prep space.
The food truck Pie Pushers, which serves gourmet pizza, plans to use The Cookery as a commissary. Caterers and small artisan food producers are also potential Cookery customers.
"I think it's a great thing for Durham to have this. It acts as a place for food trucks to use and take advantage of the facility, as well as for people in the community who want to bake for a day and teach a class that don't have a place to use," says Pie Pushers co-owner Becky Cascio. "What Nick and Rochelle are doing is more than just a space to use. I love that they've taken the building that's been sitting there a while and are doing something for the community. They already started to help us as far as booking gigs. They have connections to other places, where people are coming to them and asking for recommendations. They're able to recommend first the food trucks that use this space."
The Cookery doubles as a small-business incubator led by Rochelle Johnson, with the help of Maria Ruatto, an MBA candidate at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.
Food entrepreneurs who want to expand a business from their home, or those who want to launch an idea direct from The Cookery, could benefit from classes. Taught by experts and business professionals, the courses will focus on the basics of starting a new business, economic forecasting and more.
Row Design Studios will also offer package deals on marketing services, branding, design and public relations. (Rochelle Johnson is responsible for the new Locopops pints branding as well as the initial launch of Joe Van Gogh's brand.)
"I think people [in the Durham food community] are really active. The area is growing so rapidly and we're attracting these creative, artsy minds. People have creative [food] ideas, but to get started, it's extremely hard," Rochelle Johnson says. "This would be great for people to really kick-start their business, for those who don't have the business knowledge to get behind it."